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Young and reckless, Gators won't go away

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2000


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Oh, those wacky kids. Not old enough to be up this late, too young to know it. Too busy to read the exit signs, too stubborn to leave the court on their own.

Oh, those silly Gators. They are young, so young they do not know how difficult this is supposed to be. They are new, so new to this road to the Final Four that, evidently, they did not know this was supposed to be their stop.

This is the thing about youth today. Nobody pays attention to anything. Take Florida's basketball team, for instance, which paid absolutely no heed to the biggest brand name in college basketball. "Duke," it said, right there across the front of the opponents' jerseys. And how did Florida respond?

By winning, 87-78.

By coming from behind.

By making Duke walk from the floor, heads down, even as the clock wound down its final seconds.

This was the night a program introduced itself to the nation. Oh, those of us in Florida have been aware for some time that Billy Donovan was putting something special together. Friday night, in prime time, against the No. 1 seed in the tournament, the rest of the nation found out. This is a program to be reckoned with. Next year. This year.

How do you not fall in love with these crazy kids, with this team that plays so reckless, so relentless, so fearless? How do you not grin when the Gators come at another opponent, wave after wave, full bore all the time? How do you doubt them at all?

Can they beat Oklahoma State on Sunday to get to the Final Four? Why not? Can they get to the title game? Why not? Can they win it all? Why not?

After this, everything seems possible. This was Duke, for goodness' sake, the royalty of college basketball, winner of 28 of its past 30 games. This was the team of Coach K and Shane Battier and Chris Carrawell. This was a team that was 26-0 in East Regions. This was a team that seemed to ordained for the Final Four again.

The school of thought that was, yes, the Blue Devils were young, too, particularly at center and at the point. But much of that has been offset by Battier and Carrawell, the veterans who had played in so many big games. The biggest game Florida's players had played in, by comparison, was Friday night. The second-biggest game had been Sunday against Illinois.

So you kind of expected that maybe, just maybe, the Gators would come out a little wide-eyed. It has happened before against Duke. A team says all the right things, then it gets into a game and suddenly, the players' palms get sweaty and the mouths get dry and the balls start bouncing off the feet.

But that's the thing about these Gators. There really is something special about them. When it comes to playing basketball, they don't read the labels. What they do is fly all over the floor, unaffected by whatever tide the game might be riding at the time. Are they ahead? Behind? It doesn't matter. They play hell-bent all the time. They don't slow down if they're ahead. They don't go away if they're behind.

There were several times during this game the Gators could have wilted. Twice, Duke came back from seven down to tie the score, both times looking as if it was going to take over the game.

For the Gators, however, the most crucial time was with 4:01 to play, when Duke took a 78-74 lead and, it seemed, control. For much of the night, Duke played very much like a 16 seed, loose with the ball, taking wild shots, getting caught up in Florida's tempo. Finally, however, the Blue Devils seemed to have settled down.

Then the Gators surged again, these crazy kids, shaking everything you thought you knew about college basketball. Dupay hit a three, and Brent Wright laid in a basket, and once again, Duke's players were looking at Florida's like some pesky kid who would not go away. Florida would score the final 13 points of the game. Duke would not score again.

They don't know any better, you know. They are young and precocious. They are not yet aware that you do not run Duke ragged, that you do not expose Duke's depth, that you do not mystify Mike Krzyzewski down the stretch.

All they know is that the ball is in their hands, and the goal is in their sight.

Oh, and they've got next game.

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